Thank you to everyone for submitting questions to this week’s Stiffs Mailbag! I usually request questions at some point on Wednesday, so if you have a question you’d like answered in the mailbag, comment down below, direct message me on Twitter, or just wait to respond to my tweet request. I do my best to get seven to eight questions every mailbag depending on the topic.

Without further ado, dive in!

For whatever reason, the third quarter has been the worst quarter of the season for the Denver Nuggets. While the team is generally successful in the first half and the fourth quarter, things tend to fall apart coming out of halftime.

The Nuggets currently rank 23rd in the NBA in net rating in the third quarter of games this season. They’re 16th in offensive rating and 20th in defensive rating, so it’s not like their problems are entirely focused on one side of the floor or the other.

However, I do think the Nuggets hurt themselves by getting off to slow starts offensively to begin the third quarter, especially on this road trip. Since January 22nd, Denver’s (first) overtime game against the Phoenix Suns, the Nuggets rank third to last in offensive rating in third quarters, quite clearly assisted by a six minute stretch to begin the third quarter against the Suns on Saturday that saw Denver score three total points.

The blame can go across the board for Denver’s starting unit. While most fans will look to Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap as focal points to blame for this stretch, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić also share that limelight. It’s up to Denver’s stars to dictate the game, and with Jokić shooting just 6-of-15 from the field and Murray shooting 1-of-7 from three, I’d like to see Denver’s stars take more responsibility in helping the team buck the trend of ugly third quarters. The rest of the team will follow suit if Denver’s stars lead the way.

So, it’s not just you. The numbers like it too.

That lineup has seen the floor for just five total minutes, the majority of which came in this last game against Miami. In those five minutes the Nuggets have outscored opponents 19-2 with Murray, Harris, Porter, Green, and Jokić on the floor. Despite some clunkiness offensively, that group has been pretty great defensively against two teams that struggled to attack Denver’s weaknesses.

It’s a very small sample size, but it’s good to see Denver find a lineup that works featuring their top three scorers and two strong defenders. It might actually be the best traditional lineup on the roster, especially with the way that Harris, Porter, and Green are all shooting the basketball right now.

Will Barton and Paul Millsap have struggled lately, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Malone tried to substitute Porter and Green into the starting lineup earlier than normal in the first and third quarters so that Denver can receive that combination of length, athleticism, and floor spacing at the forward spots. In reality, Denver’s probably at their best with Porter and Green sliding into the starting lineup; however, that puts Denver’s bench unit in jeopardy after finally finding a rhythm of late. If Barton and Millsap are struggling to be effective next to Jokić, putting them in lineups that don’t feature Jokić seems like a bad idea.

The Nuggets have to be pleased with the progress Michael Porter Jr. has made on both sides of the ball during this road trip. He got his legs under him in his first game back, helped close out the next Phoenix game while grabbing 11 rebounds in his second game, dropped 30 points and hit a dagger three in his third game, and he grabbed four steals (a career high) to go with 17 points in his fourth game. Now, he obviously needs to set a career high in assists or blocks to close the road trip!

Outside of that, the Nuggets have to find a way to put the ball in his hands as a creator more frequently. It’s not necessarily about total times he touches the basketball, but more about putting him in position as a pick and roll or dribble handoff option where he can learn to make plays for others rather than just himself. It might take awhile though, because it’s difficult to tell a young player that can make any shot on the court that making a difficult passing read is the better option. Porter ranks second in the entire NBA in “points per touch” among players that average at least 30 touches per game without even updating the Dallas and Miami games just yet.

Whether it’s pick and roll, handoffs, isolations, or post ups, feed the player that scores that frequently as much as possible.

R.J. Hampton is definitely the player in line to receive the most opportunities. He’s an energetic wing that gives the Nuggets bench some extra speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball. I’ve been impressed from what I’ve seen thus far and think that, if given time to learn, he could be an impactful piece quicker than anticipated. It is expected that PJ Dozier will be out for multiple games, so unless there’s a behemoth at center that Denver could use Isaiah Hartenstein as a counter, I think the minutes could be Hampton’s to lose right now.

Hampton only played seven minutes on Wednesday against Miami, five in the second quarter and two in garbage time. Had Denver played a better third quarter, he would have seen more time in the fourth. If Denver can do him a solid by maintaining their composure throughout the game, I’d expect Hampton to average between eight and 12 minutes per game off the bench while Dozier sits.

There has been a LOT of Bradley Beal for Michael Porter Jr. chatter on the timeline lately, and for good reason. The Nuggets have the top blue chip prospect in the NBA among teams that are hoping to win now. Beal is becoming more and more frustrated with his situation in Washington. I’d be frustrated if I had to try to win games with Russell Westbrook averaging a 29.1 usage rate, producing 44.4% true shooting, and leading the league in turnovers per game too.

Beal HAS to demand out of Washington…right? He isn’t going to be successful there on a team level. Before he commits long term to the Wizards again, he’s going to consider his options and know that there are far greener pastures elsewhere. One of those places could be Denver, and the Nuggets are one of the only teams with the ability to acquire Beal.

It comes down to how much one values Michael Porter Jr. and what he brings to the table. In just his second season, Porter is averaging 18.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in 28.0 minutes per game while shooting 55.6% from the field, 47.1% from three-point range, and 85.6% from the free throw line. The crazy thing is, none of that feels like a hot streak. Porter’s shooting stroke is as pure as any I’ve seen enter the league since either Duncan Robinson in 2018, Joe Harris in 2014, or Klay Thompson in 2011. In a league that values shooting and efficient scoring above all else, could Porter be the next elite shooting wing? Isn’t that the perfect skill set to pair with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray?

I wouldn’t trade Porter for Beal. Not because I don’t think the Nuggets would be better in the short term, but because I think that Porter makes the Nuggets more dangerous against teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for the next several seasons. Being a legitimate 6’10 or taller forward, Porter’s size allows him to capably match up with some of the best players in the NBA like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Paul George. Is he near those players in terms of impact right now? No, but being able to counter a wing for a wing forces more adjustments for those teams. That’s important in a playoff series for sure.

Jerami Grant had the luxury of unrestricted free agency to find a star role for himself with the Detroit Pistons. He knew he would be the fourth option offensively in Denver given the presence of Jokić, Murray, and Porter. Three’s a crowd, but it can work. Four cooks in the kitchen? That’s a little too much.

The great thing about restricted free agency versus unrestricted free agency is that Denver could match any potential contract Porter decides to sign. As a player with a history of back injuries, Porter will want guaranteed money, and the Nuggets could offer him as much as roughly $170 million next offseason with a max contract extension. It’s very likely that if the Nuggets want Porter to remain with the Nuggets, then Porter will be on the team for the foreseeable future.

I suspect Porter wants to be in Denver though. He just has to prove to everyone in Denver that he deserves to be the man. Or at least something close to it. Jokić will always be the best player, but Porter could definitely be the top scorer given the way those two can work together on and off the ball. The real question is whether Murray is willing to cede that role to Porter. He could be willing, but Denver would have to alter their offense to having Porter touch the ball more frequently. As long as Porter isn’t a black hole with his possessions and is willing to pass the ball back, then I think things will work out. Murray wants to win, and if Porter proves he can contribute to winning, then the problems won’t creep up for awhile.

That’s a long way off though. A couple seasons at least. For now, the Nuggets have to find a way to work Porter into that starting unit.

Second question first: I do think some sort of trade is likely. The Nuggets have bounced back nicely since a rough start to the season, and they’re currently fourth in the West; however, Denver has work to do on the trade market if they plan on matching up with the Lakers or Clippers in a playoff series and being successful. I think Tim Connelly and co. know that and will act accordingly.

Now, there’s a wide list of wings the Nuggets could look to add at the trade deadline. I tend to classify wings and forwards differently, so let’s separate the two position groups and discuss what the Nuggets need at each position:

Wing Traits

  • Off-ball shooting
  • Capable slasher to the rim
  • Can play small forward in crunch time minutes against bigger wings
  • Willing to come off the bench

Which players COULD be available that might fit that criteria?

  1. Josh Hart — Key member of New Orleans Pelicans who are likely trading other players like Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick who aren’t in their future plans. Josh Hart may or may not be in their future plans, but if they don’t want to pay him what he’s worth ($12 to $15 million per season) then the Nuggets should be interested at the deadline.
  2. Sterling Brown or Danuel House — The Houston Rockets are probably still trying to pick up the pieces post James Harden, and while they have a lot of capable wing options like Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, and others, two cheaper options who might be sneaky bench contributors are Brown and House. Brown signed a minimum contract with the Rockets and has proven he has more to give on both sides of the ball, shooting 46.8% from three-point range in 14 games this season. House has some good physical traits for a shooting guard that plays small forward off the bench, so he’d be a good option too.
  3. Garrett Temple — The Chicago Bulls are fine, and while they may want to hold onto Temple for his veteran leadership, that’s exactly why the Nuggets could use him. He’s such a smart player who fills his role well, and while he definitely has some weaknesses in his game, he’s versatile enough with a good basketball IQ to make up for it late in games. Denver simply needs options late in games for different situations, and that describes Garrett Temple well. He’s a situational option.

Forward traits

  • Athletic and versatile defender
  • Willing to be a complementary option
  • Outside shooting

Which players COULD be available that might fit that criteria?

  1. Aaron Gordon — If the Nuggets are looking to make a big splash, Aaron Gordon feels like the right target. He’s athletic and skilled enough as a defender to match up with big wings like Jerami Grant in the playoffs last year. His offensive skill set is versatile enough to gel with other quality shooters and high IQ players. It would take a big swing, but I’d consider it.
  2. Otto Porter — Similar to Gordon, Porter is a versatile veteran option with complementary skills. He has shot 42.9% from three-point range to start the season, plays decent defense at 6’8”, and he would keep the ball moving offensively. His contract is so large that it’s difficult to acquire him, bu the Nuggets would benefit from having another elite shooter at the forward spot.
  3. P.J. Tucker — Another member of the Houston Rockets, Tucker is a veteran playoff contributor if there ever was one. He’s a solid defender, better than Otto Porter and maybe even better than Gordon in a playoff series. He’s one dimensional on the offensive end, but Denver always needs elite three-point shooting, especially in the corners. Could he help Denver win a playoff series in a situational role? Sure.